How to Attract Winter Birds to Your Yard

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Birds are a topic I could wax poetic on for days. You only need to know me for about thirty seconds to get a sense of my passion for the natural world—and birds are at the intersection of everything I love about it. Birds are beautiful, majestic, resilient, resourceful, and of course, a key aspect of a flourishing ecosystem. 

Despite these strong qualities, our urban birds are also fragile creatures who increasingly depend on people to help them survive our cold Ontario winters. By simply making your backyard attractive to some new feathered friends, you could literally save their lives. How many friends can you say that about?

If you’re ready to become a local hero to your neighbourhood birds, here’s how to start.

Birdie Basics: Food, Water, and Shelter

Birds, like all living things, really need three main things; something to eat, something to drink, and somewhere to live. In the winter landscape, all three of these things become dangerously scarce—the plants are dead or dormant, the ponds and streams are frozen, and most of the trees have lost their leaves. That means our winter birds are forced to compete for the limited resources they can find. Can you imagine wandering down the highways of Wellington County on foot, in the dead of winter, with nowhere to go and no food or drink in sight? It’s a heartbreaking thought, but such is life for thousands of our birds for a quarter of the year.

Now that we’ve got some perspective on how tough it is for the average winter bird to survive in Guelph, giving them a helping hand is a cakewalk in comparison. All you really need is a little gear, a bag or two of food, and a few minutes every week for upkeep.

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Food: Birdseed is not a one-size-fits-all product. Different birds require different diets to get the energy they need. Suet, for example, is made from calorie-dense beef fat, which ground-feeding birds love. Black oil sunflower seed, on the other hand, is the preferred fat source for many perching birds. If you have a strong preference for one kind of bird, you can opt for a single feeder. However, I prefer having several different feeders to attract more bird diversity to my yard. Here are the different types you’ll find at our nursery:

  • Tube feeders: These simple feeders are ideal for birds like cardinals, chickadees, grosbeaks, finches, and titmice. The design keeps the food dry to prevent spoilage.
  • Hopper feeders: A sturdy, “house”-shaped feeder that dispenses lots of food at once, often on two sides. This feeder style attracts the same mix of birds that frequent your tube feeders.
  • Suet feeders: These cage-like feeders hold a block of suet in place for woodpeckers, nuthatches, and chickadees.
  • Finch feeders: Not surprisingly, these feeders are specially designed for finches. The little guys love to eat nyjer seed from these feeders!
  • Peanut feeders: Jays, woodpeckers, and nuthatches adore peanuts. These feeders are usually constructed from coarse mesh, so birds can easily pluck them out.

Water: In the winter, it’s arguably harder for birds to find water than food. Heated birdbaths and birdbath de-icers help to prevent your backyard water sources from freezing over, so your neighbourhood birds can stop for a sip. However, the subzero temperatures make it very dangerous for birds to get damp feet or feathers. Keep a metal grate over the birdbath so the birds can drink without getting wet.

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Shelter: While I’m a believer that trees are the best birdhouses, pre-fab birdhouses are still useful for helping out your flighted friends in a pinch. If you buy a birdhouse that you want birds to use, don’t opt for a decorative feeder with bright colours or glossy finishes. These unnatural shades and materials are flashy enough to attract the eye of predators, and birds are smart enough to know it. Instead, opt for feeders made from natural wood and place them somewhere with some privacy and wind cover. Make sure to leave out nesting materials like dog hair, dryer lint, bits of rags, and yarn near the birdhouse rather than inside it—make them think they “found” it!

Predator Prevention

Speaking of places birds don’t want to be, nothing crashes a “flock” party like sharp canines and claws. As much as possible, keep feeders, birdbaths, and houses out of the sightline of roaming cats and away from areas that get heavy traffic from squirrels and dogs.

Bird-Friendly Landscape Plants

Planting shrubs and trees in your landscape is a win-win for you and the local birds. You get a lush, diverse yard that’s loaded with four-season interest, and the birds get an ample supply of naturally-occurring food and shelter. What could be better?

Bear in mind that birds aren’t stupid—they know what winter is, and many species spend months preparing for it. With that in mind, it’s a good idea to plant a variety of shrubs and trees that provide food and shelter sources at different times throughout the year.

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Some excellent shrubs and trees that bear food sources for birds include:

  • Pagoda Dogwood
  • Chokecherry
  • Winterberry Holly
  • Staghorn Sumac
  • Serviceberry
  • Raspberry
  • Blueberry
  • Red Osier Dogwood
  • Red-berried Elder
  • Paper Birch
  • Eastern White Cedar
  • Red Maple
  • Sugar Maple
  • White Pine
  • Hazelnut

Shrubs and trees for providing winter shelter include:

  • Viburnum
  • Boxwood
  • Juniper
  • Lilac
  • White Spruce
  • Eastern White Pine
  • Eastern White Cedar
  • Jack Pine

The more you do to make your yard attractive to birds, the more frequent the visits will become. Pretty soon, you’ll have regular visitors flying in as your property becomes a reliable source of life-saving food, water, and shelter. It’s true what they say—not all heroes wear capes!